The Politics of the Graft

Posted on July 7, 2014 by - Politics of the Graft


Grafting the Sterile Tree
written by Margaretha Haughwout

Guerrilla Grafters
Guerrilla Grafters graft fruit bearing branches onto publicly accessible, sterile fruit trees that are often used on city streets for ornamental purposes. We work in broad daylight at the cusp of spring. In the Bay Area, it’s when February turns to March. Small knives, special tape, plastic baggies and branch tips the length of fingers wrapped in damp paper towels are what we tote along; but even ladders, buckets of water, loppers, dogs, raucous friends, and observing reporters can be a part of our coterie. We are so obvious congregating around the smooth, bare trees, but then again, we move fast. We always keep a lookout — down the high-end streets with fresh, colorful paint where everyone walks around with delicate shopping bags and also down the streets that reek of piss, where people sleep on the sidewalks during the day. Most of the time, passers by do not ask us what we are doing.

So much of urban gardening can be accused of aiding the project of gentrification. Guerrilla grafting – this act of artistic rebellion – reveals the reach of support for a vision of the urban commons, a space of care that might collapse divides between agriculture, its subsequent ownership regimes and resource-rich systems of multi-species collaboration. The gesture of the graft and the graft itself as sculpture draws from a rich history of avant garde art practices and ushers forth a set of dynamic material relations that interrogate and imagine city streets as delicious and resilient.

Material gestures
A good graft is artful and precise. Our wedge grafts are carefully executed on thin tree branches with thin scions that match in size. The tree branch is cut into a V, and the cutting is shaped into a matching arrow ^ on two sides. As the grafter connects these, she is careful to match up the green cambium layer on both branch and scion, which is between the dead inner wood and the outer bark and is where water and sugar travel. From dormancy to life again, the fruit tree forms buds and this is when a graft is most likely to take. There is one grafter per branch, though it is helpful to have an assist to hold the surgical materials. There could be a third on lookout or for any other tagging that is to be done: secret graffiti codes marking the territory, or QR and RFID tags for additional information about the tree, the graft, or the neighborhood….

We identify three aspects of our material labor: daring, caring and sharing. The dare is the moment of the graft. Like graffiti, which has the same etymology, grafting is considered vandalism in our city. [1] The San Francisco Department of Public Works declares our work illegal, but we see our work as a political graft as well. Our work is termed as guerrilla because it is covert, laterally organized, very much the underdog. It is the work of the dare.

Often we find that a tree needs extra water or needs a pruning when we are conducting a graft. If we can, we prune branches in order try increase air and light through the limbs. Once a tree has been grafted, ideally with more than one graft, the tree must then be watched patiently. These then are the stages of caring. When the grafted branches leaf out, the grafter knows the scions have taken; the tree has accepted the branch as its own and is delivering water and sugar through that layer of green between the bark and the wood. The grafter might now find a nearby neighbor to care for the tree while the branch matures enough to bear fruit. It usually takes 2-5 years for a grafted branch to bear fruit. We have seen grafts bear fruit immediately, such as with an extremely successful Asian pear graft in San Francisco that fruited within 5 months’ of attachment; but usually grafts require abeyance. City dwellers who heard rumors of Guerrilla Grafters in 2011 might be surprised in 2016 to see a transformed and more participatory streetscape.

Sharing is the stage of gleaning and distributing fruit from grafted branches. Distributed relationships that coordinate harvests offer proof of concept against the vehement concern expressed by city government about people slipping, or fallen fruit attracting rats and homeless. Let’s design a large net at the base of a tree to collect the fruit and teams to harvest and redistribute it. Let’s be okay with a hungry person eating on the street beside a tree.

We see the graft as a set of branching material gestures with many branching responses. [2] Daring provokes caring which in turn elicits sharing. This attention to the tree’s branches in early branch, brings about watering and pruning for example. And as fruit ripens, another set of material actions, those of gleaning and distributing come about. These embodied actions provoke larger sites of contestation about resource management and what kinds of relationships can best create an abundance of resources for city residents.

Site of contestation
Performance of Scarcity
The guerrilla graft is a kind of art practice that upsets preconceived balances and purposefully toys with a frame in order to intensify the focus on each aspect of the project including the responses to the gesture of the graft and the resultant proposal for free fruit. So when SFDPW declares this work an act of vandalism, this declaration becomes a part of the performance, and subject for analysis. [3] Rather than our position only being brought into a set of legal and capitalistic narratives, we bring them into our story, our play. Indeed, the gesture of the graft invokes a celebration and a fight. There is a collective “yes” that emerges from the idea of ingesting one’s city and engaging it in ways that do not involve having to make a purchase. And a resounding “no” that emerges from departments in the city revealing themselves to be in service to the mechanisms of ownership and profit. Our protagonists celebrate propagation, replication, juice, encounters, edible cities, joy. So we ask, why are property owners and the departments in city government they influence so opposed to a city abundant in fruit?

Staging the Class Struggle
We can thus understand the gesture of the graft as generating what Augusto Boal called discursive theater. Boal proposes a kind of theater for the people that collapses the proscenium and uses sites of daily life as the stage. Boal sees that this kind of theater never ends and is a kind of continual rehearsal. In this kind of theater we ask why people do the things they do, and how we can rehearse a different world. “Contrary to bourgeois code of manners,” says Boal, “the people’s code allows and encourages the spectator to ask questions, to dialog, to participate.” [4] In this kind of theater, we see tension and fights as being class commentary. The better the fights, the more passionate the positions, the better we have done our jobs. It makes all involved an artist and a performer.

In San Francisco, we see more and more folks with all their belongings in shopping carts or with their shopping carts filled with bottles and more and more tech workers with expensive shoes and no-one in between. We walk down the streets of San Francisco and see rich people spending $7 on a scoop of “homemade” cherry ice cream right beside an ornamental cherry tree. The homeless are not considered citizens by the new tech elite, those “proper” members of civilization: “…in other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way. They realize it’s a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests. And that’s okay.” says a new San Francisco CEO. [5] The city and its elite invoke spectres of danger, disgust and disease in order to shoo people away from the real problems of property ownership and consolidation of wealth by the very few. We are curious about the spectre of homelessness and rats that haunt this proposition for streets lined with free fruit.

Physical site, Imaginative Site, Artaud’s Haunting Theater
Much of this theater happens in the imagination. This imaginative theater could be a hybrid of Boal and Antonin Artaud. Artaud says “in the true theater a play disturbs the senses’ repose, frees the repressed unconscious, incites a kind of virtual revolt (which moreover can have its full effect only if it remains virtual), and imposes on the assembled collectivity an attitude that is both difficult and heroic.” [6]

We imagine the graft bearing fruit when we attach green wood…. We imagine an encounter with difference that could be a encounter of repair…. Disembodied bureaucrats in the mediascape imagine a civilized member of society slipping on cherries that have fallen on the sidewalk amidst homeless getting munched on by rats and dying of the plague. Guerrilla Grafters argue that these spectres are meant to turn us away from an engagement with the landscape of our city and each other. We celebrate all these imaginings and their conflicts – we embrace these conflicts as part of our theater. We are grateful to the fearless arts that support and stage conflicts — between grafters and property owners, between various kinds of fruit eaters, between fruit eaters and city officials — because democracy does not exist without difference. [7] Facilitating an encounter allows for an ethics of difference, and, as Deborah Bird Rose points out by drawing from Emmanuel Levinas, ethics precede ontology. Our lives are determined by ethics that are “situated in bodies and in time and in place.” [8]

The practice of guerrilla grafting is a performance of abundance that in effect reveals the legally sanctioned performance of scarcity that we participate in daily in the US, and forms a background for the contestation about what the city should be, and who may or may not benefit. One could also see the graft itself as a metaphor for the moment of conversation – the linking up of ideas to shift the flow of nutrients (in this scenario, local government is a sterile tree…). The graft itself can be seen as what Joseph Beuys calls “Social Sculpture.” The graft itself is a sculpture, and it results in a set of propositions for post-civilized changes in the social structure; we understand these to be actual changes in material engagement — daring, caring and sharing being small practices towards this end.

Unraveling civilization one branch at a time
The Guerrilla Grafters know that certain human gestures can enhance resilient and beneficial ecosystems and that controlling the wild, erasing it, or marking it off as untouchable lays the groundwork for unfettered greed. But just as the fruit tree marked the moment of the Fall from Paleolithic culture to Neolithic culture in the Old Testament, it also can mark the emergence of modes of non-hierarchic, mutually beneficial engagement with non-human life forms. The urban commons is but one of these kinds of places. This is not a “step backward” to a simpler version of the past past based on nostalgia, but generative, interactive bodily actions that have infinite complexity. We look at the ground we stand on and to those not civilized for technologies and modes of engagement that can help us in our effort to unravel these civil “plots” (agricultural plots, conspiratorial plots, historical plots). [9]

Techniques for abundance
The history of civilization in the Western world is trackable through Old Testament tales such as The Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel; but even when read as what they really are — a database of changes in modes of engaging nature, some of them being hunting and gathering, agrarian, sedentary and civilized, as well as pastoral — there is a danger in reading them as a far too facile binary between civilized/ non-civilized, and thus as a history of progression from simple to complex culture. As Max Oeschlager and others point out, this transition does not speak to a facile “tension between shepherds and farmers either as one of dialectical consequence, where thesis inevitably leads to antithesis, or as an ecological consequence, where a more complicated mode of existence (agriculture) emerges from simpler beginnings (herding).” [10] Part of the problem with this binary is that while modes of civilization in the West do not vary much, and can generally be traced as having organized war, ideologies of progress, stratified classes, urbanism and poverty in common, the “non-civilized” category can only be perceived by the civilized as such. Furthermore, as the above quote suggests, the commons has functioned as a response to civilization, an attempt at escape, that at times works as a liminoid, cathartic and therefore problematic respite from it. [11] But when we eat the fruit again, and for those that have been continually been eating of the fruit in a wilderness that is not anthropocentric, it is evident that there are a range of bioregionally and historically specific strategies for cultivation, forage, hunting — that result in radically different social formations.

It is interesting to note how the fruit tree often figures at the cusp of a transition from shared and renewable models of existence to models of control and ownership. We see it again during enclosure, when thorny Hawthorne and tangled Elder line the hedgerows in England that divide up and obliterate the commons, literally driving commoners to the city for work with thorns and brambles. We think it can herald us out of civilization too. The fruit tree operates as a mythological and technological doorway. Let’s start with Bing Cherries and head toward rooftops and vertical gardens teeming with wild strawberries, thimbleberries and wild grapes; manzanita cider and mashed gooseberry. [12]

Creating/ cultivating a way out
The idea of grafting a fruiting scion onto a sterile tree seems to match this idea we have for the city in this moment of time. The city can only come about through the initial move of civilization to create agricultural spaces separate from the rest of nature. It is in the city that the extremes of profit-driven culture are on display to anyone who isn’t on their iPhone: where the centralizing/ consolidation of wealth that comes about via the inability to see how distributed wealth is necessary for the survival of the species and the extremes between those that have and those that have-not are most contrasted (we are not deceived by the so-called sharing economy that lines the pockets of those already rich). [13] We understand the city to facilitate the continual thieving of humans and non-humans living on the edge of survival; and an agriculture that fetishizes annual mono-crops is the principal prerequisite for this theft. [14] We have this idea for the city, the pinnacle of civilization, with its resource drain and stratification, to have it be the site of exit, where we move from sterility to fruit, from scarcity to abundance, from the blank sidewalk to graffiti, from urban enclosure to the urban commons, from winter to spring. [15] Our city and most all cities in late capitalism are sterile trees. To create and tend to a wild commons in the city is to begin to staunch the enormous suck of resources drained from the surrounding countryside and from far off countries for the higher classes to luxuriate, for it to light up and hum…. To graft onto this is to tap into this flow and redirect it.

The sculpture of the graft, its collaborative pluck and bite… it is but one sculptural move among many that encourages a wilderness where human influence is felt as one species’ among many. The graft is a material sculpture, and it results in a set of changes, potentials and exchanges in socio- wilderness relations. And so, we also draw from Joseph Beuys’ idea of Social Sculpture. He says “…art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system to build a SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART.” [16] We understand everyone, human and non- to be an artist, and in this way to be collaborating on a viable social sculpture. The sculpture is the grafted tree, our own governance in relation to nature, as well as viable, cultivated, mutually beneficial relations with the life that surrounds us. So when there is an abundance of rats, we say it is time to erect a tall pole for the owl and hawk.

The undoing of civilization might sound unnerving, but we understand civilization to be, at its core, the act of designating space where food and habitat is separate from the “unknowable” wild. This is engagement rather than disengagement or avoidance of difference. It is a skilled performative and skilled sculptural gesture to cut branches in a way that make more branches, to attach branches that make fruit and viable pollen, to engage in relationships that fold economic divisions and redistribute abundance. What we wish to show is that poverty is a condition of civilization, and our gesture (performance) and our graft (sculpture) — the risk of being caught with instruments that wound and heal — explore a way out, a very tiny step among many, of this condition. Forces of capital need people to be unable to meet their own needs from their neighborhood of human and non human life in ways that generate resources rather than deplete them, from sunlight falling on rooftops, to coppiced ash for buildings and pathways that make for healthier trees, to deadheaded Hypericum perfolatum, a practice which makes more blossoms, for medicine. [18] We think that all artists (everyone) should make this kind of labor the center of their practice so that our earth, and our cities especially, are laboratories for survival.

[1] Ian Pollock, conversation with the author, October, 2011.

[2] This use of the term gesture is inspired by Ricardo Dominguez. See Ricardo Dominguez, “Gestures,” in Live: Art and Performance, ed. Adrian Heathfield. (New York: Routledge, 2004), 72-75.

[3] See for example Amy Crawford, “Renegade arborists creating forbidden fruit in San Francisco,” SF Examiner, January 4, 2012,

[4] Augusto Boal, Theater of the Oppressed (New York: Theater Communications Group, 1985), 142.

[5] Sam Biddle, “Happy Holidays: Startup CEO Complains SF Is Full of Human Trash,” Valley Wag, December 11. 2012,

[6] Antonin Artaud, The Theater and its Double (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 24.

[7] In 2011, the Guerrilla Grafters won the audience vote at the Gray Area Foundation for the Art’s Summer of Smart Hackathon; the winners were set to receive funding and support to work with city agencies to build out their project. Somehow, GAFTA had another secret meeting and we were ousted from first place. In our opinion arts organizations should support difficult conversations. See

[8] Deborah Bird Rose, Reports From a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonization (Sidney: University of New South Wales Press, 2004), 8.

[9] Hayden White, “Bodies and Their Plots” in Choreographing History, ed Susan Leigh Foster. (Indiana University Press, 1995), 229-230.

[10] Max Oelschlager, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 48.

[11] As we move out of civilization, one caution is that our commons don’t act as exceptions that prove the rule. See for example, Joline Blais, “Indigenous Domain: Pilgrims, Permaculture and Perl,” Intelligent Agent vol. 6 no. 2

[12] M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 277-278.

[13] Blais, “Indigenous Domain,” 7-8.

[14] So the city has marginalized folks who work toxic landscapes of pesticide-laden monocrops comprised of annual vegetables – “food” – that land owners and workers won’t even eat. These “foods” that make the workers and their families sick get trucked into the city by the ton, while the very privileged San Franciscans exoticize the organic hyper-local annual crops of their surrounds, which by the way are usually grown by middle class European Americans and sold at bafflingly high prices. And these market prices are dependent upon the rarity of the “hyperlocal.”

[15] Ian Pollock, conversations with the author, June 2014.

[16] Joseph Beuys “I am Searching for a Field Character, “ in Participation, ed Claire Bishop (), .

[17] Anderson, Tending the Wild, 237.